Gonzaga Is No. 1. Gonzaga Is Undefeated. Gonzaga Gets No Respect.
Yet Mathews was a regular contributor during his three seasons with the Golden Bears, and Williams-Goss was on the all-Pac-12 freshman team at Washington in 2014 before transferring across the state after his sophomore season.
“I mean, Arizona is in first place in the Pac-12 right now, and we beat them,” Williams-Goss said.
“We beat Washington,” he said, citing another Pac-12 team.
Williams-Goss added that the University of San Francisco, a W.C.C. team, defeated Utah, yet another member of the Pac-12, before Gonzaga “took care of the Dons with a 95-80 victory this month.
“Having been in the Pac-12, what everybody says about us is overrated,” he said, “especially this year, and with this team.”
Gonzaga’s opportunity to rise to No. 1 began Tuesday when No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky lost within a few hours of one another. Two days later at home, the Bulldogs dismantled San Diego, a .500 team, by 79-43, and then, on Saturday, they romped over Pepperdine, the W.C.C.’s last-place team, 96-49, in Malibu, Calif. By then, the No. 3 Bulldogs already had become the presumptive No. 1.
That would put this year’s team at least on par with the ones that are remembered in banners hanging above their heads every time they take the floor at Spokane’s McCarthey Athletic Center. The earliest banner memorializes an N.C.A.A. tournament berth in 1995. Other banners recognize a stunning run to the round of 8 in 1999, and trips to the round of 16 in the two seasons after that — 18 qualifications in a row through last year.
There were hints during Gonzaga’s rout of San Diego that these Zags could differ from the past squads that fell short of the Final Four.
Williams-Goss scored at will, piling up 25 points, and the lanky junior forward Johnathan Williams slashed his way to a double-double.
The senior Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound center from Poland, leads the conference in field-goal percentage, but it is his court vision that really impresses, his ability to spot cutting teammates and hit them in stride.
“In the past, some of our teams maybe had somebody you don’t have to guard, and they’d double the post off that guy,” said Coach Mark Few, in his 18th season leading the program.
But this team is more balanced, he said, and Karnowski has the passing skills to make daring opponents pay.
Four Bulldogs are averaging more than 10 points a game. Three more are within 2 points of that benchmark. The Zags play stingy defense, too, giving up the ninth-fewest points per game (61.4) in Division I. Against San Diego, Gonzaga held the Toreros to 2 points in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Few, the coach, dismissed the significance of a No. 1 ranking at this point in the season.
“To me, No. 1 is like tracking a stock,” he said. “It doesn’t do you any good looking at your 401(k) until you go to cash out.”
He also hesitated to characterize his team as the undisputed best. “But there have been times,” he said, “there have been possessions, there have been four-minute spans where we’re playing better than anybody in the country.”
When the Zags are making 3-point shots, Few added, “when we’re defending the rim, when our guards are playing — yeah, there have been stretches where we’re as good as anybody.”
Gonzaga has been No. 1 before, topping the final poll in 2013 before being upset by Wichita State in the third round of the N.C.A.A. tournament. But a Final Four would bring a validation that a midseason ranking cannot.
“It’s something we haven’t done,” Few said. “We’re running out of things we haven’t done. That seems to drive a lot of people to question us. I’m not one who signs up for that. If you can get to the tournament 18, 19 straight years, that says enough.”
Few dismisses the notion that his program needs to reach the final weekend to validate the previous two decades, and he doubted that the criticism would end even if his team made it to Phoenix in March.
“It’ll morph into another one,” Few said. “ ‘How come you haven’t won a national championship?’ ‘When are you going to get back there again?’ ‘You’re not really an established program if you don’t get back there again.’ It never ends.
“For me, I just want our guys to play our best when our best is needed. If they do that, then good on them. I think we can compete with anybody in the country on any particular night.”
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